Bridging the Gap: Reaching First-Generation Students in the Classroom

By McMurray, Andrew J.; Sorrells, Darrin | Journal of Instructional Psychology, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Bridging the Gap: Reaching First-Generation Students in the Classroom


McMurray, Andrew J., Sorrells, Darrin, Journal of Instructional Psychology


The presence of first-generation students in the college classroom poses specific challenges for instructors, across disciplines. Being cognizant of the unique characteristics and tendencies of first-generation students is a first step in better reaching this population. Also, implementing strategies geared specifically toward first-generation students will help these students in efforts to bridge the gap between a high school education and a baccalaureate degree.

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Considering the many contemporary pressures faced by faculty members, it is a wonder that significant consideration is still given to general, cross-curricular classroom practices. Nevertheless, in the midst of worries regarding tenure, research agendas, teaching load, committee work, and community engagement, many still find the time to seriously reflect on effective teaching strategies and self-assess their own efforts. Students are, of course, the benefactors of faculty commitment to professionalism.

However, students do not exist as a monolithic entity and they are not neatly categorized. Rather, they are individuals that come from various cultures; and each culture invariably impacts these students profoundly. While it is impossible for the classroom teacher to be mindful of every culture from which students come, there are particular commonalities that can be drawn from particular populations of students. For example, it has long been surmised that students who come from homes in which neither parent graduated from a college or university share a fairly coherent and specific set of obstacles that other students do not face. Even during the 1960s, with the implementation of specific social programs such as the federally funded Trio programs, Americans recognized that they were, at least at a macro-level, obligated to help those members of this population capable and desirable of higher education to have access to it.

In much the same way, those in the classroom can positively impact the chances that first-generation students will succeed. Despite the myriad of challenges that these students confront through their attempts to earn a degree, any help along the way can improve their chances. Seemingly small strategies and acts in the classroom itself can serve as an impetus for uplift. Using general techniques appropriate for all students and others more specifically oriented toward first-generation students, instructors can, indeed, make a difference.

Characteristics of First-Generation College Students

There already exists extensive research dealing with the characteristics of students who happen to be first-generation college students. Some of the pervading trends among this population can serve as useful knowledge to those teaching in the college classroom. These trends include such issues as student retention, self-efficacy, grades, student self-perceptions and identity, and aspirations. An understanding of these commonalities can prove useful in assisting teachers in higher education to appreciate the inherent differences between first-generation and other students.

Choy (2001), studying the 1995-1996 academic year, determined that an average of one of every three students at a four year college or university and one of two at a community college are first-generation students. These students generally enter college with a relatively limited understanding of what higher education entails and actually have a distinct undergraduate experience when compared to other students (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, and Terenzini 2004). Compared to many of their peers, they are largely unprepared for the drastic transition from high school's regimented school day to the perceived freedoms and responsibilities that accompany college life. Culturally, these students also often find themselves in a process of identity renegotiation as they traverse a world that is unbeknown to their own culture (London 1992). …

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